By Elizabeth Wroten
YA Review: Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
On 15, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong grew up in New York’s Chinatown, the older daughter of a Beijing ballerina and a noodle maker. Though an ABC (America-born Chinese), Charlie’s entire world has been limited to this small area. Now grown, she lives in the same tiny apartment with her widower father and her eleven-year-old sister, and works—miserably—as a dishwasher.
But when she lands a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio, Charlie gains access to a world she hardly knew existed, and everything she once took to be certain turns upside down. Gradually, at the dance studio, awkward Charlie’s natural talents begin to emerge. With them, her perspective, expectations, and sense of self are transformed—something she must take great pains to hide from her father and his suspicion of all things Western. As Charlie blossoms, though, her sister becomes chronically ill. As Pa insists on treating his ailing child exclusively with Eastern practices to no avail, Charlie is forced to try to reconcile her two selves and her two worlds—Eastern and Western, old world and new—to rescue her little sister without sacrificing her newfound confidence and identity.
I think this one is technically an adult novel, although I didn’t realize that when I got it. I would call it New Adult with plenty of appeal for an older YA audience. I’m not sure why I decided to read it (must have gotten a good review from someone) since I tend not to be interested in adult novels, but I’m glad I did.
Hooray! This one was not about a miserable middle aged woman having a tepid affair. In fact it ends well and despite adversity and a lack of confidence, Charlie is a likable and relatable character who you’re happy to see things work out for. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on adult fiction after all.
Mambo in Chinatown tackles a TON of issues, but Kwok keeps it from turning into an after school special. The struggles Charlie faces make the characters and story feel real. Actually, it’s the variety of issues and problems that could broaden the audience this book would appeal to.
Not only is dance a large part of the story but it’s shown as a path to bettering her chances in life. Charlie never considered going to college. She has some undiagnosed learning difficulties and never really did well in school. It was refreshing to read a story about someone choosing a different path that is treated as equally valid (even if it’s difficult).
Tension between traditional ways (and generations) and the younger generation is also a major theme. The immigrant experience plays into this, as well as ethnicity. Charlie has rarely been out of Chinatown and it’s a big deal when she begins to work outside. Charlie’s sister also suffers an unexplained health crisis (it is explained toward the end). Their uncle is an eastern medicine practitioner and their father tends to prefer this type of treatment and defers to his brother. Charlie is skeptical of it, especially when her sister’s health continues to spiral downward.
I was especially taken with the relationship between Charlie and her sister Lisa. They are eleven years apart and their mother died shortly after Lisa was born. With the added stress of being very poor, Charlie has had to grow up quickly and is more of a mother figure to Lisa than a sister. Charlie is wonderfully encouraging of Lisa and, because she is young and less tied to tradition, she makes a good advocate for her with their father, uncle, and larger community.
There’s been a lot of talk about NA being YA with sex and I even heard an author call Fifty Shades of Gray NA. I suppose it is in a way, but I think the idea that it has so much sex doesn’t make it NA. Sex is certainly a part of many (most?) people’s lives when they’re new adults but I think it’s rather simplistic to think that it’s the only thing that’s changed between young adulthood and new adulthood. Or the only part that new adults want to read about. Mambo in Chinatown has sex in it. One sex scene that really happens off page. It’s certainly not graphic. In fact I’ve read steamier sex scenes in YA novels. But I think the way Kwok handles this relationship in the book is how sex in a book appeals to new adults. If you want lots of graphic sex, read erotica. Read erotic NA. Here the sex is simply a part of the story, a minor but good part.
My one and only complaint about the book was that some of the metaphor gets a bit heavy-handed and obvious with big flashing red arrows pointing at them, but they were few and far between. Nor did they detract from the rest of the writing which was good.
Give this book to kids who are interested in dance, dance competition, diverse characters, tensions between tradition and modernity, and mother-daughter relationships.